Exclusive: Modern U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine doesn’t just target people in faraway lands where the U.S. military is battling some uprising. It also takes aim at Americans whose dissent might undermine those wars, possibly explaining the strange arrest of Ray McGovern, writes retired JAG Major Todd E. Pierce.
By Todd E. Pierce
Did COIN or counterinsurgency doctrine come to New York’s Upper East Side in late October? One might think so when a critic of retired Gen. David Petraeus was denied entry to a public event and then roughly arrested by New York police.
On Oct. 30, this generation’s COIN deity David Petraeus and acolytes John Nagl and Max Boot were to discuss “national security” at an event open to the public at the Upper East Side Y. However, when former CIA analyst and war critic Ray McGovern arrived with ticket in hand, he was “neutralized,” as the COIN practitioners might put it.
McGovern was greeted by a security official who addressed McGovern by name and seemed to be expecting him. The security official told McGovern he was “not welcome” and denied him entry, ticket or no ticket. Not only did the security officer seem to expect McGovern, but NYPD reinforcements were on hand to arrest McGovern on charges of trespassing, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
The 75-year-old ex-CIA analyst, who was suffering from a shoulder injury, had his arms pulled painfully behind him as he was handcuffed, causing him to scream in pain. He was then transported to jail where he spent the night on a metal cot.
McGovern wrote afterward: “But one mystery lingers. The ‘organs of state security’ (the words used by the Soviets to refer to their intelligence/security services) were lying in wait for me when I walked into the Y? Why? How on earth did they know I was coming?”
McGovern’s answer to his own question was that it would seem the group that he was staying with was the target of an intelligence collection operation. That is what one would expect the authorities to do to “counter insurgents” in a foreign nation where U.S. forces operate, as Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Manual explains. Or, you might see it in a nation under an authoritarian political system, what we used to call a Police State before we Americans adopted those same methods.
But the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is supposed to prevent the suppression of public speech by government or quasi-government officials. That was the principle at least, until the 9/11 attacks “changed everything.”
On Oct. 23, 2001, six weeks after those attacks, Justice Department officials Robert Delahunty and John Yoo signed an Office of Legal Counsel Opinion entitled “Authority for Use of Military Force To Combat Terrorist Activities Within the United States,” essentially giving President George W. Bush, as the “Commander in Chief,” the power to impose martial law.
Yoo/Delahunty wrote in that opinion that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to military operations within the United States, which would logically include operations by the National Security Agency, an intelligence agency within the Department of Defense, i.e., surveillance operations against the U.S. population.
Yoo/Delahunty also claimed: “First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully. ‘When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.’”
This assertion that the Constitution’s safeguards of a citizen’s rights must be set aside at a time of war even one as vague as the “war on terror” and must be replaced by the prerogative power of the military authorities, with the “Commander in Chief” at the top, acting under a theory of unlimited presidential powers, is descriptive of martial law.
Or as the Supreme Court once said, “what is termed martial law, but which would be better called martial rule, for it is little else than the will of the commanding general sometimes advanced by men, with more zeal than wisdom and is at variance with every just notion of a free government.”
All the available evidence, principally the DOD/NSA’s spying-on-citizens program, would indicate that martial law was instituted under the Bush regime and remains in place with continued domestic DOD/NSA spying under the Obama regime. That authority for domestic military operations would logically include COIN, a menu of tactics so extensive that it covers everything from full-scale army operations to the control of undesired political speech.
This is what Ray McGovern can be said to have encountered at the Upper East Side Y. It is irrelevant that no military personnel were on hand, other than retired military officers. Martial law is not limited to only the military exercising the prerogative power of the Commander in Chief; it is most successful when citizens themselves take on the task of enforcing the “Commander’s intent,” in whole or in part.
Nor is it necessary that martial law be publicly declared. For example, the removal of the Japanese-Americans from the West Coast during World War II at the instigation of General John L. DeWitt was an example of martial law. It wasn’t called that for political purposes, just as it is not called that now, even though the military, via the DOD’s NSA, continues to conduct a military operation against U.S. citizens.
The McGovern Case
So here is the logic of a COIN operation and how that can hypothetically be seen as having been executed against Ray McGovern: Part of COIN theory deals with control of information, sometimes called “information warfare,” in which the enemy’s propaganda and other communications are blocked or undermined and your own messaging is left unchallenged.
From the 2014 version of the COIN Manual, or FM 3-24, “Information Operations” are defined as information-related capabilities “to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decisionmaking of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.” Part of the strategy is for “our own” side to influence a “target audience” while making sure the enemy is frustrated in similar attempts.
At the Oct. 30 event, Petraeus, Nagl and Boot given the role they’ve played promoting COIN might very easily see their public speaking through a COIN lens. Thus, their listeners that evening would constitute a “target audience” whom the speakers clearly intended to influence. And, Ray McGovern by planning to challenge Petraeus during the Q-and-A could be viewed as the “enemy” or at least someone aiding the “enemy” cause.
McGovern, though a longtime intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army and the CIA, has emerged as an internationally known antiwar political activist who, in 2006, publicly challenged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about his false statements regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a confrontation that led evening news shows, energized domestic critics of the Iraq War and arguably in Petraeus’s view undermined public support for the war.
FM 3-24 explains, “Threat characteristics involve the activities, and tactics of an insurgency. Tactics for an insurgency include political activities. The use of political activities to influence a society is another political activity of an insurgency.”
These activities include “Demonstrations, propaganda, strikes, and civil disobedience. Propaganda is one of the most important political tools an insurgency has” by providing the means for an insurgency “to communicate a message, often political, to the population.” This allows an “insurgency to create a narrative of why the government’s actions are not legitimate.”
In other words, McGovern might have asked a pointed question that would counter the message that Petraeus was seeking to convey to the audience, particularly that his COIN policies have protected America from its “enemies” and thus must be continued.
McGovern said his hope was to ask Petraeus, who had been responsible for training the Iraqi army, why that training had failed to prevent the Iraqi army from fleeing the battlefield when confronted by militants from the Islamic State. “Will you come out of retirement and try to do it better this time to train the Iraqi forces?” McGovern said, describing his intended question.
In other words, McGovern’s question might have popped the inflated bubble around Petraeus’s reputation and raised doubts about whether the general’s counterinsurgency warfare had actually done much to protect Americans.
Repression Coming Home
But one may ask, this was at the 92nd St. Y in New York City, not an overseas country where the U.S. is currently applying COIN? FM 3-24 explains, however: “A center of gravity (emphasis in original) is the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act. Counterinsurgents must understand their own center of gravity and that of the host nation. In many cases, political support is the strategic center of gravity for the U.S.”
That is, if political support among the American people for the U.S. military’s counterinsurgent policies is lost, then the insurgents win, according to this COIN theory. Much of this thinking stems from the supposed “lessons” of Vietnam where many generals blamed the U.S. defeat not on their own failings but on the success of “enemy propaganda.”
The Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that the Vietcong targeted the U.S. media and American antiwar activists, causing the public to lose faith in and patience with the war. After the war finally ended, Gen. William Westmoreland and other generals complained that the U.S. news media gave moral support to the enemy through critical reporting about the war and helped turn the American people against the conflict.
But the American people didn’t need the media to tell them about this failed war; they had evidence from the many funerals of dead servicemen and anecdotal stories from returning soldiers. Subsequent studies, including by U.S. military historians, have further debunked the military’s “stabbed-in-the-back” complaint, blaming the defeat instead on an unwinnable strategy and the staggering loss of life.
But the “enemy within” myth continued to dominate much of U.S. military’s thinking about the Vietnam War, including Petraeus’s updated counterinsurgency manuals and subsequent ones. “In a counterinsurgency, the insurgent often targets the U.S. population with themes and messages concerning the insurgency,” FM 3-24 asserts. In other words, American anti-war activists, who question the U.S. government’s own propaganda themes or who give credence to the arguments from the other side, are still being viewed as “enemies within” who must be neutralized.
Of course, this outlook overlooks what has been a central tenet of al-Qaeda’s strategy to draw the United States deeper into the Middle East in order to exhaust America financially and militarily, to keep the U.S. locked in this conflict until it suffers a devastating strategic defeat much as was done to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But to military COIN theorists, like Petraeus and Boot, al-Qaeda’s scheme is outside the scope of their analytical ability.
The Information Battlefield
So, in the minds of the totalitarian-oriented COIN theorists, the war is really about information and the battlefield is everywhere. According to this doctrine, “Insurgent support activities include communications. These support activities sustain insurgencies and allow for both military and political actions. They are enabled by an insurgency’s ability to generate popular support. These networks can include support from other nations or from population groups outside the country.”
This paranoid viewpoint is, of course, not unprecedented. Indeed, it has been common for authoritarian systems to label dissent against their war policies as support for insurgents or other “subversives.” This attitude has been a common denominator of nearly all despotic military regimes from Hitler’s Germany to Pinochet’s Chile to modern Egypt under a variety of military rulers: dissent equals treason.
In fact, the COIN Manual cites as an example the case of the Tamil Tigers and the alleged support these insurgents received from civilians of the Tamil diaspora following ethnic riots against the Tamil people that drove many to flee Sri Lanka. According to the manual, this global diaspora then became a major part of the Tamil Tigers’ “propaganda network,” a statement that would be a bit like charging German Jewish Ã©migrÃ©s pre-World War II of being part of an American “propaganda network” for telling the truth about conditions in Germany.
FM 3-24 does acknowledge that a prerequisite for an insurgency is “Motive” but adds that grievances alone are not sufficient to spur an insurgency. It takes leaders “to build a compelling narrative that links grievances to a political agenda and mobilizes the population to support a violent social movement. When grievances mobilize a population, they are a root cause of an insurgency. The presence of a foreign force can be the root cause of an insurgency.”
While all that is well and good and would apply to almost all political uprisings including the American Revolution the lessons drawn from this current obsession with “counterinsurgency” veers off into some dangerous directions. Behind it is the assumption that virtually all insurgencies at least those not initiated by Washington deserve countering.
Yet, sometimes, indeed often, insurgencies reflect the urgent desires of an oppressed people for justice, meaning that modern counterinsurgency warfare, as practiced by Gen. Petraeus and other U.S. strategists, can become just one more boot on the people’s neck.
It also follows that the COIN’s obsessive practitioners will begin to detect the enemy within the United States, since the information war is global and the counterinsurgency operation must protect itself against a loss of political will among the American people. Thus, a citizen who asserts that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was to blame for the Iraqi insurgency could be accused of enabling the insurgency, being part of the enemy’s “propaganda network.”
In counterinsurgency thinking, “external support” for an insurgency can be something as vague as “moral support.”
The Insurgent ‘Network’
Another pertinent dynamic identified in the COIN Manual is “Organizational and Operational Patterns,” which can be almost as ambiguous as “moral support.” It is explained that “Insurgents may be organized into networks,” a series of “direct and indirect ties from one entity to a collection of entities. Insurgent networking extends the range and variety of both insurgent military and political actions. Networks of communications, people, and activities exist in all populations and have a measurable impact on the organized governance of a population and, consequently, military operations.”
So “networks” are not limited to insurgents inside the foreign nation where the insurgency is active; these “direct and indirect ties” can extend to all populations and include a variety of friendly, neutral and threat networks, each meriting its own treatment.
Individuals in a network are called “actors or nodes.” Connections between nodes are links, and a link between two people is a “dyad.” Understanding dyads is essential to understand the nature of an insurgency, per the FM 3-24’s doctrine.
This is accomplished through “network mapping, charting, and social network analysis,” which are “intelligence products that can aid in refined analysis and course of action developments.” Intelligence collection for this purpose would be in the manner of total surveillance, electronically and digitally, as the NSA is alleged to be engaged in globally, including inside the United States.
So what does a counterinsurgent do when encountering a “network?” FM 3-24 prescribes the solution: attack the network.
“Attack the network operations consist of activities that employ lethal and nonlethal means to support friendly networks, influence neutral networks, and neutralize threat networks.” Thus, an individual node, a dyad or a larger group providing external moral support to an insurgency whose root cause is the presence of U.S. forces in that country or region would be defined as a “threat network” which would need to be “neutralized.”
At least one type of network as described in the COIN Manual, “friendly,” and maybe the second sort, “neutral,” were present at the 92nd Street Y when Ray McGovern approached with a ticket in hand. As an antiwar activist who has called for U.S. troop withdrawals from countries where U.S. forces have been engaged in counterinsurgency, Petraeus’s COIN doctrine and its totalitarian view of the world would put McGovern into the “threat network” as perhaps a “peripheral node,” even though he does not support any of the insurgents in those conflicts.
But actual support is not required to become part of a “threat network,” just behavior that causes trouble for the counterinsurgency strategy or that could be interpreted as undermining the information warfare campaign against the enemy or that could be seen as lending “moral support.” And, according to the COIN Manual, these “threat networks” must be neutralized to protect friendly forces and populations while creating time and space for other counterinsurgency operations to succeed.
While the talks by Petraeus, Nagl and Boot could be expected to bolster “friendly networks,” McGovern threatened to undermine that effort by posing a critical or embarrassing question to Petraeus. Thus, the doctrine called for taking “direct actions against threats, reducing their functionality and impact, in order to set conditions for supporting friendly networks and influencing neutral networks. The goal is to change the perceptions and behaviors of neutral audiences to support the achievement of U.S., multinational, and host nation objectives.”
Getting in the Way
According to the doctrine, it is not necessary that the forces neutralizing a node in a network be military; in fact, “If the police have a reasonable reputation for competence and impartiality, it may be better for them to execute urban raids than military forces because the population is more likely to view their application of force as legitimate.”
Of course, we can’t say for sure at this time what prompted the preemptive strike against McGovern and his troublesome question. The precise scenario of who instigated the arrest might emerge from future court proceedings or the details might always remain a mystery.
Perhaps the incident was not organized by senior practitioners of counterinsurgency strategy, even though the speakers that night were well versed in these theories. Another possible interpretation is that some individuals who simply despise dissent a right-wing goon squad in the mold of old-time fascist storm troopers took it upon themselves to squelch McGovern’s attempt to exercise his First Amendment rights.
Either analysis could be correct and might not represent much of a distinction because COIN doctrine has become something of a secular religion in many political circles in the United States, a disdain for people who challenge the government’s assertion of “national security.” That anger at anti-war dissent has percolated from the top down and gained an official imprimatur through the “war on terror.”
After all, COIN amounts to the exercise of military rule over a given area while all forms of force from full-scale army operations to paramilitary killings to dissemination of propaganda to political activity are used to crush the resistance.
In the case of neutralizing Ray McGovern at the 92nd Street Y on Oct. 30 a mission carried out by the NYPD and private security operatives the tactics of COIN doctrine were on display. So was the possible motive: the need to suppress McGovern’s question that might have undercut the U.S. government’s counterinsurgency goals.
Todd E. Pierce retired as a Major in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps in November 2012. His most recent assignment was defense counsel in the Office of Chief Defense Counsel, Office of Military Commissions.